LARRY Cox has helped air travellers to safe landings at busy airports and sat as a guide at the bedside of hospital patients on the toughest journeys of their lives.
When he retired as manager of the communications centre and flight watch area at Brisbane Airport more than 20 years ago, he launched into something completely different.
He became a voluntary chaplain for Centacare at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.
It was something he’d been training for in the previous five years leading into retirement and choosing that path flowed from being a member of the Secular Franciscan Order.
Secular Franciscans are lay Catholic men and women who “follow Christ in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi”.
They come from all walks of life, and diocesan clergy can be members as well.
St Francis of Assisi founded the Secular Franciscan Order almost 800 years ago, in 1221, for lay people who wanted to live the Franciscan charism but were married or, for some other reason, were unable to join the First or Second Franciscan orders – the Friars Minor and Poor Clare nuns.
Larry, a Brisbane Catholic and originally a farm boy from Alberta, Canada, is now the Queensland regional minister of the Secular Franciscans as well as being on the national council for spiritual directors specialising in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, and having those commitments is one reason why he’s retiring from chaplaincy this month.
He was Franciscan first, before a chaplain.
He began seeking them out in 1982 when he and his wife Lucy moved to Brisbane.
“There was just something there – a desire that I wanted to get into the ethos, the charism (of St Francis and the Franciscans),” Larry said.
And as he searched, he had a closer look at the way of St Francis when his children attended Franciscan-run schools.
“Our (two) boys went to Padua College (at Kedron), which was excellent,” he said.
“And my daughter went to Mt Alvernia (college), and we now have three grandkids there (at Padua), with a couple more who’ll eventually get there as well.
“There was just something that was attractive to me – the lifestyle of St Francis …”
Larry said what attracted him to the charism was “the simple lifestyle, realising that you don’t need all the materialistic things of today’s world”.
“When you look around, we’ve got too much …” he said.
“St Francis followed the aspects of Jesus, so it’s following Jesus under the example of St Francis of Assisi.
“Really, that’s a short way of describing it.”
St Francis’ way of “just helping people” gelled with Larry.
“And I suppose that’s why I thought chaplaincy would be good, because you’re helping people at a critical time in their life, when they’re asking the big questions – ‘Well what’s happening to me, and why is it happening?’, ‘What’s life all about?’,”he said.
“And, really, when you go to palliative care at the hospital and they’ve been told they’re dying, you can get into some very deep conversations.
“… In the business world it was really, as a manager, setting policy and guidance and taking people to task when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, whereas in the Secular Order you work with people.
“Charity comes to the front more, realising that nobody’s perfect and everybody makes errors, and we work with where people are at.
“And St Francis, he was that way.”
Before Larry became a Secular Franciscan, Lucy was planning an overseas holiday for them, and his one request was that they include a three-day visit to Assisi.
At the time, he was preparing for his profession into the order but he asked if the ceremony could be delayed until after he’d been to Assisi.
That visit confirmed for him that he was on the right track, and he was professed when they returned home.
His move into hospital chaplaincy came later.
“After retiring from the airport, there was an ad in the church newsletter about people thinking about getting involved in pastoral care and I saw it a few times and … because it mentioned working with people in dire situations, I thought to myself, ‘I could do that …’, not realising exactly what it was,” Larry said.
“And I rang up and they interviewed me and said ‘Yes’, and so we started training.
“It was just a matter of giving back and helping people after getting out of the working environment, and working with people with situations in their lives and just trying to help them.
“With St Francis, it was a big thing to be involved and to help other people, and chaplaincy provided a good avenue for that.”
Larry has visited patients four mornings a week for the past 20 years – the first 15 years at Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital and the past five at Prince Charles Hospital – and his efforts have been well and truly appreciated.
Centacare’s pastoral ministries director Judy Norris recently presented him with an award recognising his service on top of a similar award he received late last year from Centacare executive director Peter Selwood.
One of the most important lessons he’s had to learn is to bite his tongue.
“We don’t tell them (what to do),” he said.
“We throw in things that they can then work out with an outcome that they then believe.
“I think that’s very important.
“It’s the same in spiritual direction. We don’t preach at them.
“They will tell us a story and then we’ll say, ‘Well, have you spoken or thought about this?’”
The Franciscan way of serving others has helped.
“… When you walk in to the patients I suppose what they see in me is a person that they can talk to and open up – that I’m not trying to reflect back my situation in life, because they’re not interested in that …,” Larry said.
“You really have to train yourself to realise you’ve been given two ears and one mouth, and you’ve got to use them in that proportion.
“And every time you want to jump in and say, ‘Yeah, the same thing happened to me …’, you bite the tongue and you continue to hold attention to that person in front of you.
“That helps in both my Secular world, in the Franciscans, and especially in spiritual direction.
“Really it’s so important when you’re across the table from someone who’s got some big concerns, to forget that you’ve got any concerns of your own.”
For Larry, it’s been about creative and active listening, and offering patients “a supportive and empathic relationship by tapping into their feelings”.
“We can allow people to talk about most things and many of those things that they will not talk to anybody, and even family members, about,” he said.
“Sometimes their fears of mortality come up and big issues of the meaning of life, perhaps their need to make peace with members of their family or friends that they haven’t spoken to for some time.
“The patient comes into contact with the interface of life with death and we all know these are big issues.”
Larry’s found the most important thing is simply being present.
“And then they realise that they could open up and come out with some of their concerns that you could help them work through and to see different options …, which is primarily what we did – help them emotionally, spiritually …
“And it’s just the satisfaction in doing that.”
It’s been enriching, “because you’re not there preaching and you’re there to be with people to help them and to guide them, and that, in itself, you can walk away with a sense of satisfaction”.